Yes, Thor can be a woman and I’m kinda sick of having to explain it

The new look female ThorYes, I noticed Thor is set to be a woman. I was going to write something earlier but there was, I felt, enough discussion going on. Now that I’ve had to explain why it’s OK to more people than I’ve cared to or should have had to, let me summarise every argument thus far (this is not rocket science people, honestly).

Thor can be a woman because we’re only loosely dealing with Norse mythology here – according to Marvel comic-lore anyone ‘worthy’ to wield the mighty hammer Mjölnir gets to have the power of Thor, including frogs (Thog, 1986). I think we can all agree that an actual human/new Asgardian as Thor makes more sense than a frog.

Is this a mighty feminist move? That’s more problematic.

Yes, a new female superhero is always welcome, with some caveats, particularly when they’re taking over for a traditionally male character, because Boom! Women! In that vein Captain Marvel becoming a woman in 2012 was fantastic and definitely a big props feminist move; also, Captain Marvel is awesome!

Jane Foster as thorHaving said that, as many other people have noted, why do we need a wholly new character to take on the role? Why not just promote a ‘woman of merit’ from within the franchise? I for one would have preferred Sif to take Mjölnir and smash through that Asgardian glass ceiling. Hey, remember that fun ‘what if?’ when we had a look at what might have happened if Jane Foster had found Mjölnir or how Captain Marvel (aka Carol Danvers) was once Ms Marvel?

Next – heads up Marvel, it’s not feminist if you make Thor a woman for a short amount of time before you decide it’s time for, say, a movie to come out and it’s just less problematic if Thor’s a guy again. This is a legitimate concern to raise given the incredibly sticky, self-iterative nature of Marvel’s marketing and promotion strategy across all its product outputs.

Finally – Dear Marvel artists, just a reminder that one of the greatest projects aimed at explaining how to draw strong, kick-arse, female comic characters is named after a fellow Marvel character and sometime Avengers team-mate, Hawkeye, and to take its message on board. Because women can be sexy, god-like, wield hammers and still, you know, wear actual clothes and stuff (though you don’t seem to be doing too badly there so far).

See, not rocket science. Now go and see Guardians of the Galaxy – too much good times!

Why simple criticisms of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are missing the mark

Agents of SHIELDIt didn’t take long – comic book geek types (myself included) are a critical sort; quick to jump on inconsistencies, perceived casting mistakes (c.f. Ben Affleck as Batman), and to offer ‘fixes’ for ‘problems’, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been no exception. In fact, we were only three episodes in when the blogosphere started up: we expected more; the series is blah; the whole thing needs a reboot, and Paul Schembri’s recent article for The Conversation, five episodes into a 22 episode series (which by no way in anybody’s count is halfway Paul) is no exception. The thing is, much of the criticism is hyperbole (which we’ll get to) and all of it is missing the much bigger mark, and that’s the role of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the very ambitious and intricate project of cross-media world building that Marvel is undertaking.

So, let’s address the criticisms Schembri leveled at the show.

1. Joss Whedon has a patchy track record, except for Buffy and Angel, but (oddly) he should have hit the mark immediately with S.H.I.E.L.D. Yes, I concur, Whedon does have a patchy history (and I’m not just talking ‘feminism is a problem’ speeches – I’m disappointed Joss, really, really disappointed), but watch this great rant at Firefly fanatics and you’ll get an idea of the kind of fanbase he has (for the record, Dr Who , always,– Tom Baker in the anniversary episode – T.O.M. B.A.K.E.R.!!).

Second, I recently re-watched the first season of Buffy – guess what, it’s a little clunky (OK, quite a bit clunky) but it didn’t stop it becoming, well, Buffy. Should he have or, more fairly, could he possibly hit the mark immediately with S.H.I.E.L.D. – of course not, particularly given the long-term vision he typically brings to a show. Buffy of course was very famously planned seasons in advance – re-watch the show and it becomes obvious just how far in advance narrative and character arcs were plotted.

2.  Ratings are falling. Well they were and they weren’t, and after the Thor cross-over, The Well, they went up. The truth is, while the ratings fell (not a great measure of a show’s actual popularity in this day and age of self-curated TV schedules), it was still doing well in its time slot overall, and it was leading the lot in the much vaunted and illusive 18-49 male audience. This show is not getting canned anytime soon folks. Whedon has time, and he knows it. Not to mention the fact that abc is owned by Disney, which happens to own Marvel Studios.

3. The argument from the presence of superviewers. Well by Schembri’s own admission these viewers are unlikely to have much of an impact on whether a show makes it past its original 10 episode pick up – and it’s a moot point since S.H.I.E.L.D.  was the first new show of the season to be granted a full run. Secondly, there are superviewers who love the show. You’ll find their stuff over at – the official fansite. And, in fact, the time when superviewers have an impact on the life of a show is generally in campaigns to save or bring back cancelled shows, which has been effective in the past.

This brings me to:

3.  The recent deal with Netflix is an indication that Marvel is looking elsewhere because it knows S.H.I.E.L.D has problems. Ahh, no. Marvel has made this deal with Netflix because it is expanding its screen offerings. Further, the deal has been done for series that introduce popular comic fan, but lesser known in the outside world, Marvel characters (Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage), and reboots Daredevil, whose character license recently reverted to Marvel after its dismal film outing (Affleck!).  And, again, each of these characters will be tied together into their super-group The Defenders. As Marvel boss Alan Fine stated at the time, these series offer “fans the flexibility to immerse themselves how and when they want.“ Also, guess what, Netflix is owned by ABC/Disney – you know, Paul, the people who make S.H.I.E.L.D.

I’ll expand on that development in my next post.

And it’s this cross-media strategy – linking characters, shows and narratives across multiple screens and formats – that the criticism of S.H.I.E.L.D. has failed to recognize. If you place S.H.I.E.L.D. within the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe (or even the standard Marvelverse) you find that it, much like Stark Industries (if we’re going whole hog geek let’s remember it was Howard Stark behind S.H.I.E.L.D. at the outset), operates as a kind of Grand Central Station of narratives while at the same time maintaining its own internal consistency. What this means is that stories pass through it – S.H.I.E.L.D. is there to tie up loose ends; to provide the background for potential threats – basically to expand upon the before and after of the movies, while at the same time being able to build its own narrative map. If you need proof I direct you to Thor: The Dark World, where S.H.I.E.L.D. had a greater actual presence (its logo on scientific equipment) and threatened one (Natalie Portman’s character Jane Foster states they shouldn’t alert anyone to the gravo-metric anomaly in order to prevent S.H.I.E.L.D. from turning up and shutting down the site), and to the presence of Caterpillar project in this series, clearly an Extremis thing – Iron Man 3, people.

This is part of the genius of What Marvel are doing, and it’s best summed up by a friend, a DC girl through and through, who recently said that she feels a greater sense of investment when it comes to the Marvel films and S.H.I.E.L.D., precisely because she knows, if she doesn’t keep up with everything she may miss something vital to the next movie.

And that’s the true beauty of Marvel’s strategy.

Hulk Smash Sexist Comics!

After writing my last piece on what men could do to fix their ‘sexist comic book guy’ image I decided to go and speak to some great comic book loving guys that I know about some of the ways that they think the problem can be solved.

They all pointed me in the direction of the Hawkeye Initiative, a project that aims to point out the ridiculousness of the way in which women are portrayed in comic books. The premise is simple: If Hawkeye looks stupid in the pose then the artist needs to rethink their portrayal.

One of the people I spoke to was the wonderfully talented Safdar Ahmed (who does some really great and important work with refugees in detention in Australia with the Refugee Art Project). As luck would have it, for me anyway, Safdar was ill that week and so had time to devote to putting together his own Hawkeye Initiative-style, or in this case Hulk Initiative piece for me.

So, without further ado, here it is, along with Safdar’s explanation (warning, imagery NQSFW)

The guy in the background is supposed to be a teenage Comicon Trekkie nerd who salivates over soft-porn, Ralph magazine-style poses when it comes to female super heroes. Though my depiction of Hulk (which gives a strong tip of the hat to Todd McFarlane) is a little rude, so of course is the depiction of women in comics culture more generally, so hopefully the point comes across.



Tell me, how would you ‘smash sexist comics’?

So you have a “woman problem”, now what?

An Australian politician, let’s call him Mr Prime Minister for argument’s sake, was told by his PR team that he had an image problem during the lead up to the election campaign, specifically he had a “woman problem”. By which we mean women tended to find him a wonderful example of all that was not right about 1950s-esque attitudes towards women. The solution: you’re related to some women right? Get ‘em out there. Then, once in office, the best thing to do is to declare how much you care about women by making yourself Minster for Women.

Comic book loving men, this is not how to deal with your “woman problem” image issues, and not just because the office of Prime Minister of Australia is currently occupied.

Thankfully the solution isn’t that hard and the power is in your hands (and you won’t have to be bitten by a radioactive spider or suffer the trauma of a science experiment gone wrong leaving you with some serious anger management issues).

So what can you do?

Well, all good image rehabilitation campaigns have to start with the simple recognition that wrong has been done. You need to acknowledge that there’s a problem and that something has to change.

If you’re having difficulty identifying the problem ask a woman – we’re happy to help you out on this one. Or you can read yesterday’s post to get you a-thinking.

Once you’ve identified the overall problem spend some time thinking (or chatting to women and other men) about how you might, inadvertently or otherwise, be contributing to the problem: Chuckled at the ‘Big Cans’ ads in the NYC Comic-Con brochure? Spent time talking to a female cosplayer’s chest? Think female superheroes getting slapped on the ass by their ally is OK, because it’s just a laugh right? Haven’t noticed that the recent spate of comic to movie adaptations has been a bit of a boys’ club, and why’s that a problem anyway? See where I’m going with this…

So now you’ve done that, let’s get these comic-sans (awful, awful font) times a changin’ – let’s get all Blambot custom font on this situation’s arse.

Which leads me to…Speak out.

Write about it, like Daniel Amrhein did over on Journey into Awesome, when he questioned aforementioned ass smacking.

Tell organisers that you won’t accept sponsors with sexist attitudes tainting your convention fun times.

Do some great fan art or a fanzine of kickass feminist superheroes and post it to official fan sites.

But most importantly: Talk to other men about it Get them to be part of the solution.


Because we all want to play and live and learn in this great big superhero, comics loving-verse equally, it’s more fun that way. And do you really want to be the guy (Agent Flynn) who gets forced to eat his sexist attitude by Howard Stark after Agent Carter pulls off a mission single-handed?

And in case you needed another reason, there’s this: when enough people question why they can’t buy their little girl superhero underpants, as Tom Burns did on the Good Men Project, this can happen, and we’re all better for it.

Comic loving men: You appear to have an image problem and it’s not the one you think…

So last week a (male) friend posted up a link to an article by The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald on some incidents of sexual harassment at NYC Comic-Con, with the line “What the actual fuck?” The incidents reported included a crew from “local TV cable show Man Banter” asking highly inappropriate questions and saying things like “Well in my experience, girls who stand next to me longer than 20 seconds get a cream pie” to female cosplayers. Man Banter is apparently devoted to all things manly – because of course saying things like that on camera is manly. By the way they currently appear to be in hiding – also manly. And then there was the 16 or 17-year-old who was grabbed and kissed without permission, leaving her visibly shaken. And the fact that one of the main rooms was sponsored by Arizona Beverage Co, who, charmingly, are running a ‘big cans’ promo fronted, oh so imaginatively, by a woman with, you guessed it, ‘big cans’.

I chose not to write this straight away because, frankly, I needed to calm down or this blog post would have gone something like: WTF? Are you actually fucking serious? Who the fuck thinks this is in any way appropriate behavior? Fuck you, you fucking advertising creeps who think that kind of campaign is witty, you bunch of hipster retro douches. Mad Men you are most certainly not, and at least that show is set in the 50s and 60s and the creators are kind of making a point about how that behavior is not acceptable. This is 2013 dickheads and we’ve moved on from that kind of objectification (or bloody well should have).

But while that’s a completely appropriate response to a very fucked up situation, it’s not a particularly constructive one (thanks Mum). So instead I have spent the weekend dealing with my anger and aggression so that I can provide a measured response, because there’s no room for simple invective on this one.

Point the first:  There is never an excuse for sexual harassment. Let me repeat that – There. Is. Never. An. Excuse. For. Sexual. Harassment. Female cosplayers wearing tight costumes and corsets are, again: Not. An. Excuse. For. Sexual. Harassment.

What was most disturbing to me about this is the fact that NYCCC’s organisers appeared to do very little to sort the problem out when it happened. OK, so the creeps in question had got press passes on falsified information, but here’s the thing – when someone describes the group to security and gives them the name of the company on the camera equipment, particularly when you discover they aren’t on your press list, you send security out to look for them. And, yes, I am aware of how big NYCCC is. So for next time here’s a hint:  You know the band …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead? Well, you shall find them by the trail of women who are seriously annoyed and making complaints.

Point the second:  Comic book heroines do tend to be well endowed, but that’s no excuse for a sponsor who translates that to cans of frosty beverages (and we’ll get to the first part of that in a later post).

As MacDonald mentioned the audience at Comic-Con is roughly 40% women, that’s at least 40% of people there who would find the ‘big cans’ campaign offensive. You may never have managed to get a girl into the sack, and consequently spent your life dreaming up the ultimate fembot, but here’s another tip: That’s not how you do get a girl to go out with you.

Happily up on the Empire Room Stage, where the ‘big cans’ cavorting was taking place, several of the male panelists were visibly unimpressed. Bravo, and please write to the organisers expressing just how much you hated that bit, because you’re men, and maybe they’ll get it if other men tell them to pull their heads in.

But what has this to do with an image problem you say?

Well simple, this is not the first time nor, unfortunately, do I think it will be the last time that someone writes a blog post like this about the treatment of women within the comic scene. And the fact that I could generalize so easily tells me that this is not unusual thinking about men who read comics.

So this week, I’ve decided to tackle the comic book industry and scene specifically from a feminist perspective and examine how you comic loving men out there are actually the solution to this problem. Let’s call it Women and PR 101.

On becoming a comic book (graphic novel) geek….

ImageI came to the world of American comic book heroes later in life, although, like lots of children of the 70s, the Superman films were a big part of my life and Batman was still playing on children’s TV of an afternoon. I was aware of comics; my Irish parents had introduced me to the world of The Beano and Whizzer and Chips as soon as practical during time spent in the UK and Ireland. I still have a great deal of affection for Dennis the Menace and Gnasher, and an attendant fixation with red and black striped jumpers. Seriously, if you ever want to see me get excited about a piece of clothing (that is not a YSL le smoking jacket) then send me a slightly tatty red and black striped jumper (mohair preferred). It wasn’t until my first year of university that a new world of comic books, or, rather, graphic novels opened up to me.

Hanging about in the bar between lectures (I still maintain that first year philosophy makes more sense after a ‘couple’ of beers, though deciphering your lecture notes later is an exercise in patience and cross dimensional thinking) I met a couple of guys who talked about comics as an art form, not just as light entertainment. On their advice I went to Comic Kingdom to check out Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Here was something new, a darker more nuanced world, with intricate links to mythology, and artwork that was less about BOOM! KAPOW! SMASH! more about detailed panels; more  capital A-art, I suppose. These were also comics with serious ‘literary’ cred. I was studying early English literature and medieval history. I was a Goth (it was the early 90s). I was hooked.

From there I discovered Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and his epic graphic novel From Hell. Of course, once I had crossed paths with Moore’s works it was only a matter of time before I rediscovered superheroes. Moore had written the follow up to Frank Miller’s (Sin City), 1986 revisioning of the Batman series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,  a comic that is and will no doubt remain a classic. It was a grown-up, definitely no underpants on the outside, superhero comic whose central character was deeply flawed and who reflected the deep unease of the times. Still I never really moved on from Batman, never considered looking at the greater DC universe. Childhood recollections of the cartoon series The Justice League may have put me off slightly, also, come on, it’s a pretty lame name for a bunch of iconic comic crime fighters.

Which brings me to Marvel. The Marvelverse, to be honest, really only properly came to my attention with the release of X-Men in 2000 by which time I was starting a PhD looking at notions of trauma and national identity on film. Again it was the move to a darker world that drew me in. Then came Spiderman (2002), again, darker. The notion that aspects of the film had to be changed in the wake of 9/11 was also fascinating, but that’s the subject of an entirely different post for the future. So, I started to take a look at this comic world; I spoke to friends who knew the ins and outs, the character connections and genesis stories, the histories. I was struck by how interconnected the worlds were, how intricate the character arcs, the cross-world significance of objects and substances such as adamantium.

As I was considering all of this, three new things happened in the world of comic to film adaptations:

  • In 2005 director Robert Rodriguez teamed with Frank Miller to bring his acclaimed Sin City series to the screen, a move that brought a new edge to comic book worlds on screen.
  • In the same year, Warner Bros re-launched their Batman franchise, basing it not on the kitschy 60s world, as the originally Burton-helmed films had been, but in that of Miller and Moore’s Dark Knight.
  • In 2008 Marvel started Marvel Studios, taking full control of their Cinematic Universe.

A new world of comic book films had hit our screens – things were getting a whole lot more interesting.

It was Marvel’s approach, however, that really caught my eye – something bigger was going on with their franchises. Not only had they taken full creative control and ownership, they were hiring big name actors, known for their work in serious dramas – Robert Downey Jr, Nathalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, Edward Norton – along with lesser known faces, and making interesting decisions regarding directors, starting with John Favreau. Then, in May 2010, Marvel Studios announced that Joss Whedon would be taking on writing and directing duties on The Avengers. Cue serious comic geek fandom overdrive, which would only be heightened when Marvel announced Whedon was on-board to helm a TV spin-off – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

So, here I am in 2013, a fully fledged comic book geek and an academic, watching Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, more interested than ever in what Marvel is doing with its world, and eager to see what twists and turns there are in store. Looking at their film and TV slate – the best is yet to come. And I clearly have a book to write.

Channel 7 we need to talk about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Dear Channel 7,

Let’s talk about the concept of fast-tracking TV shows because it seems you might be missing the point and, well, that’s not good for your bottom line or for us.

The point of fast-tracking a show is ostensibly to create a sense of excitement – let’s call this ‘event TV’ – around a certain program whilst simultaneously making it less likely that fans will turn to downloading to get their mitts on it. This is good for your bottom line because more eyeballs on the screen means more advertising revenue for you. It’s a pretty simple concept – until you consider that apparently by ‘fast-tracking’ you mean airing something anywhere between hours (up to 48) or days (unspecified) later.

This brings me to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now I’ll admit I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in various comic book stores and was recently incredibly impressed when a friend’s 2-year-old coloured in Wolverine with blue and yellow and announced him old-school (go Hank!), so I was super excited to learn that you were picking up Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which meant that I wouldn’t have to turn to Foxtel and the darkside. Part of my excitement was because you were fast tracking it. And here’s the thing – when a show like this is fast-tracked it means a few things for me and the other fans:

1. We don’t have to download it (not that I ever would because that’s very bad; also, I respect Joss Whedon and understand how super expensive superhero shows are to make);

2.  we don’t have to avoid the internet or any of our US-based friends on Facebook in order to avoid spoilers, which impact, some may say ruin, the viewing experience;

3.  we can take part in discussions with other fans all over the world and engage in the online Marvel Universe through something like the show’s official site,, or Twitter account – which you showcase on your site – without the risk of aforementioned spoilers, and also with some idea of what’s been happening.

Point one: fast-tracking when done well is really great and we encourage it.

But that’s not what’s happened with this hotly anticipated show – let’s say this together – based on a massively popular and lucrative cinema franchise. You see, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. commenced on September 24 in the US and 12.2 million people tuned in; it beat The Walking Dead’s season premiere, it was number one in its time slot (I found that out on your website by the way). The show is so ‘fast-tracked’ it’s coming to Wednesday this week, a full seven days later – but I love your bus ads, so good job!

So, what does this mean for you and your bottom line?

1.  Pretty much everyone has already downloaded the show (it’s OK Marvel, we’ll all buy the DVDs when they’re released). The results of which are:

2. less eyes on your ‘fast-tracked’ program;

3.  less eyes on the program means less eyes on the ads, means less revenue for you.

Point 2:  Fast-tracking when not done well is pretty annoying and people will find a way to watch the program that’s actually ‘fast-tracked’ and you lose money.

Now I am aware that ‘fast-tracking’ two, or any, first season programs, as you’ve done this year, is a first for 7. I’m assuming it’s because you’ve made a calculated assessment that they will in fact draw viewers. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., of course, has the benefit of an inbuilt and, OK, slightly fanatical, audience of comic book geeks and anyone who watched any of the Marvel movies and liked them. The Blacklist has James Spader being creepy in it, which is also a thing; incidentally, Spader will be playing villain Ultron in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The thing is, when dealing with ‘hot property’ such as this you really need to better consider your concept of fast-tracking, not just because comic book fans are mean when crossed (read a forum one day) but because it shows a startling lack of understanding of how real people engage with the media environment today. As we’ve seen in other arenas, that kind of knowledge deficit is not good for business.

So please, consider a catch up mechanism and air current Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D episodes on the Wednesday evening, mere hours after the Tuesday night US air time. It will be good for us and good for you.

Of course, if this is all Marvel’s fault… Stan Lee, Joss Whedon, I thought you knew better.